As I’m sure some of you will know, I was a City solicitor for 16 years before swapping the dizzying heights of the city of London skyscrapers for the rabbit warrens of Parliament, so actually it’s nice to be back with members of my former profession this evening.
I have to be honest with you, as a lawyer I got rather used to being surrounded by white, male, middle-class colleagues, so you might appreciate why the House of Commons feels familiar. I thought I would speak to you this evening from my role as Minister for Women and Equalities, rather than Secretary of State for Education.
Often people say to me that there are too many lawyers in Parliament, and I would tend to agree although I think Parliament in terms of background, is more diverse than it used to be.
The skills that I learnt as a solicitor, such as the ability to consume large amounts of information, distil them down to a pithy argument, advocating on behalf of people, and understanding how the law is made and passed, but also abused, on a day to day basis have stood me in good stead as a Member of Parliament and I am very grateful to the profession for the training that I’ve had in my time as a solicitor.
If you’ve been watching Broadchurch you might have noticed that the judge, the defence lawyers, and the prosecuting lawyers are all female. And they’re pretty good at what they do!
So whilst it’s great to see strong professional women on a prime-time programme watched by millions around the country, it’s even better to look around tonight and see a more diverse mix of law professionals in the real world too, and I know we have some women in tonight who have set up their own firms too.
I know there’s been some real progress recently.
The majority of new entrants to the profession, 60%, in fact, are women.
Almost half of solicitors are female, and that’s extraordinary when you consider that its less than 100 years ago from when the first female solicitor gained entry to the law society.
There are 21 women in the High Court; that’s the highest number ever.
17 of the most prestigious law firms have signed up to the Government’s Think, Act, Report initiative, pledging to be transparent about their progress towards gender equality.
And 6 law firms featured in The Times’ Top 50 Employers for Women list last year.
I’m more than sure these successes are replicated here in the city and county too, in the thousands of smaller law firms around the country. Which is great news for budding solicitors, judges, magistrates, or barristers, no matter their gender or background.
Because I think it goes without saying that the best firms and the most successful teams, in any sector, draw on people with a broad range of experiences and backgrounds.
Sadly I can’t give the impression that all is well.
I’m incredibly proud that the gender pay gap for women under 40 working full-time has recently been eliminated. In fact there was coverage recently that actually for the under 40s, women are earning more than men.
But I was less proud to read that, in my old profession, that gap resolutely remains.
A recent study showed that the average salary for a qualified male lawyer of any level stood at £50,000, compared with £38,000 for women. In other words, female lawyers are earning almost a third less than their male counterparts. That’s an astonishingly large difference.
I think there are two main areas we need to address if we’re to achieve a truly fair, equal, and diverse legal profession in this country.
First, in material terms, we need to make sure that women are being rewarded equally for their hard work. There simply cannot be any excuses for paying anyone less because of their background or their gender. And there can be no excuses for policies that disadvantage women with families or other caring commitments.
But just as important is a change in culture. Pay women as much as you like, but if they don’t feel comfortable in the working environment, we’ve only fixed half the problem.
I’m acutely aware that there’s a big part for government to play here, and that’s why I am committed to an independent careers and advice company, which will work with all young people, in particularly those aged 12 to 18, to inspire them about the amazing job opportunities we have in this country, but also to keep them engaged in education.
All of us here in this room have a part to play, and I know that from what goes on locally in Leicester, this careers company is going to have a lot to learn about what goes on in this city and county.
I also want our education system to ensure we are teaching those employability skills which you as employers tell me you don’t always find when you are interviewing young students. I also want the profession to support young people, in particular young women, in ways to move into more senior roles.
I should just stop here and talk about my own personal experience for a moment because, before I left the legal profession when I was elected in 2010, I was working as a professional support lawyer. I think the legal profession deserves a lot of credit for developing a role which allows men and women to take contact with clients and lawyers, and also allows them to work fixed hours and part time hours, and I talk about this at every opportunity.
And I hope some of the firms in this room will bear this in mind; if you haven’t got a professional support lawyer role that you consider doing so, in order to keep your brightest and best engaged at a time when they have other commitments.
Too many women often don’t get as far up the ladder in their careers as men, due to a lack of flexible working opportunities or quality part-time roles. That’s no different for the legal profession.
We’re introducing shared parental leave. New childcare tax provisions. Important regulations to ensure that companies who lose employment tribunal equal pay claims will have to conduct full pay audits.
And we’re extending the right to request flexible working to all employees.
I know that in some circumstances, flexible working can be difficult. It’s not always easy to say yes, but I am also convinced that if you are asking people to work long hours, I also think it’s important for all of us as employers to be flexible at a time when it is necessary, and actually I think this flexibility will be repaid by the loyalty of the employee who appreciates the support that they have had from their employer.
I hope to see more and more companies and their staff thinking about how flexible working can benefit them, male or female, young or old.
But of course it’s vital that our policies consider all aspects of inequality in the workplace. Just as damaging can be a lack of social mobility or opportunities for those from more disadvantaged backgrounds.
Roughly 7% of the population in England and Wales attend a fee-paying school. But the proportion of privately educated Magic Circle firm partners is over 10 times that.
There’s no reason that the top jobs in the top firms should remain an enclave for the privileged few.
That’s why the Social Mobility Business Compact, launched by the Deputy Prime Minister in 2011, aims to make sure that no one is prevented from fulfilling their potential because of where they’re born, the school they go to, or the jobs their parents do.
What the compact really wants to see is behavioural change in organisations, ensuring jobs are open to everyone, and supporting social mobility.
To date there are over 180 businesses signed up and I want to see this continue.
Many of you may already be members but if you’re not I would urge you to give this your serious consideration.
But of course I’d urge you to do much more than this, too.
Men and women, from paralegals and trainee solicitors all the way up to high court judges, in the biggest international firms or the smallest local office, all have a responsibility to themselves and their colleagues.
A responsibility to make sure that pay and conditions in the companies we work for and the businesses we own are fair and equal.
That the working culture they encourage, or even insist upon, recognises that success comes from more than 9 to 5 working, from shouting the loudest, or from hiring certain groups of people from certain backgrounds.
I would like to see flexible working becomes the new norm.
I would like to see women are supported to climb the corporate ladder.
And that a career break for having children doesn’t knock them back down after years of hard work, and those of you that are lawyers and have been lawyers will know how many years it takes to actually become a qualified solicitor.
I take heart from all that we’ve achieved already.
And I know from my own experience that there are just so many dedicated, driven individuals in the legal sector that are fighting for greater equality and fairer opportunities.
So I’d like to see you leading the way in working with government and going above and beyond to support and encourage talented men and women no matter their background.
I can’t think of anything that would make me prouder to say that I spent 16 years of my life as a lawyer. My skills and the things that I’ve learnt and the experiences I had as a lawyer have stood me in valuable stead over the last 5 years.